Tokyo Report

Japan Self-Defense Force Withdraws From South Sudan

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Tokyo Report

Japan Self-Defense Force Withdraws From South Sudan

The decision highlights the domestic constraints on Japan’s defense activities abroad.

Japan Self-Defense Force Withdraws From South Sudan
Credit: Flickr/ UNMISS

On March 10, the Japanese government decided to stop the dispatch of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) engineering units to the United Nation’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) after the current unit completes its activities at the end of May. JGSDF has been participating in road construction projects around the South Sudanese capital, Juba, since 2012 as a part of the UN peacekeeping force.    

In the press conference held to announce the decision, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that his government’s decision was based on the judgment that the infrastructure construction work that the JGSDF engineering unit has been undertaking “has reached a juncture.” Pointing out that Japan continues to send JGSDF officers to the UNMISS headquarters, Abe emphasized that Japan remains committed to supporting South Sudan under the banner of a “proactive contribution to peace” through other means including humanitarian assistance.  

Regardless of the official explanation by Tokyo, the decision to withdraw the JGSDF troops reflects Japanese government’s limited ability to send the JSDF overseas for missions other than humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). Simply put, despite the defense reform bill (commonly referred to as “Peace and Security Legislation” in Japan) that was passed in September 2015 and went into effect in spring of 2016, Japan’s ability to play a “proactive” role remains very much limited.  

The limitation comes from a strong political and societal aversion to seeing the JSDF engaging in any situation that may resemble combat overseas. There is no doubt that such an aversion comes from the trauma of World War II, which remains strong in Japan. Still haunted by the destruction from World War II, which is generally considered to be the devastating consequence of military adventurism abroad, Japanese society by and large remains fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion of the JSDF being put in a situation under which Japanese troops may have to shoot and potentially kill people overseas. In addition, with the country long removed from the memory of war casualties, there is an especially strong aversion against casualties.

That is why the Japanese Diet, when legislating to authorize JSDF participation in UN PKO missions, installed what is known as “Five Principles of PKO Participation.” These principles outline the requirements for Japanese participation in peacekeeping missions: (1) there must be a ceasefire agreement in the country where the JSDF is to be dispatched; (2) all the parties in the ceasefire must agree to accept JSDF activities; (3) neutrality is maintained; (4) in case any of the aforementioned three conditions are no longer met, the Japanese government has the right to withdraw the JSDF; and (5) the use of weapons is to be limited to what is minimally necessary for the personnel to protect themselves. Although the last principle — limiting use of weapons only to the self-defense — was later revised to allow the JSDF to not only protect themselves, but “those under their care,” JSDF participation in missions that involve the protection of others (referred to as kaketsuke keigo or “rush-to-rescue” missions) were not authorized until the Peace and Security Legislation was enacted.  

In case of JSDF activities in UNMISS, a bitter debate broke out recently about whether the country is in a state of civil war — if so, it would violate the first condition of the Five Principles (maintenance of a ceasefire) which could (and, in the minds of opposition party, should) prompt the Japanese government to exercise its right to withdraw JSDF contingent. The debate was particularly controversial because it was occurring as the Japanese government tried to add the kaketsuke keigo mission to JSDF troops that are dispatched to UNMISS. Although kaketsuke keigo was officially added to the mission of JSDF troops dispatched to UNMISS in November 2016, the question about the security situation in South Sudan — whether it is “safe” enough for JSDF to continue its operations — continues to be raised. In this context, the Japanese government’s decision to withdraw the JSDF from UNMISS at the end of May 2017 is a tacit acknowledgement that the security situation in South Sudan may be growing unstable — too unstable to prevent possible casualties in the JSDF.  

In the Japanese domestic context, Abe’s decision was appropriate. Should JSDF troops suffer any casualty, it would likely create considerable backlash against further JSDF participation in UN PKO. For example, the Japanese police no longer sends its personnel to UN PKO since it lost personnel in Cambodia in the 1990s. Some criticize Abe’s decision as too late, arguing that kaketsuke keigo should not have been added to the mission of JSDF troops. Others even question whether Japan should have sent the JSDF to UNMISS in the first place, given that it was known even back in 2012 when Japan first decided to send personnel that the security situation in South Sudan was rather tenuous.

Whether appropriate in the domestic context or not, Japan’s decision to withdraw its troops this spring runs counter to Abe’s insistence that Japan would play a proactive role in international peace operations. Today, approximately 11,000 out of the 15,000 personnel operating under UNMISS are military personnel, suggesting the inherent risk in the mission.  Many of these personnel engage in activities that are higher risk that those Japanese troops have engaged in. Given the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, the need for military personnel to deploy to maintain stability in the country will grow bigger, not smaller. For Japan to withdraw the JSDF at this juncture, therefore, can be perceived as Japan being unwilling to take risks alongside with other countries.

Of course, sending military personnel to PKO is not the only way to make a meaningful contribution to the mission. Still, what Abe said in the press conference — “We withdraw troops, but continue to provide development and humanitarian assistance” — echoes his predecessors, who had even more stringent constraints in sending the JSDF to UN missions. If this is the reality in Japan that Abe has to work with, he will have to better articulate what Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace” will look like without sizable JSDF participation.  Otherwise, there is not much difference between what he calls a “proactive contribution to peace” and the “checkbook diplomacy” that Japan was once criticized for.